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Changing the way the Earth looks from space

Chris Davis of US-based Impossible Foods describes how the company developed a burger that tastes like meat but is made entirely from plants.

Meat and dairy products are delicious, nutritious foods that have enormous cultural importance and provide 20% of the calories and one third of the protein consumed by humans.

Unfortunately, animals are a very inefficient way to make delicious foods. Only 3% of the calories and proteins fed to cows make it into the human diet, and only 9% of those fed to pigs[1]. The majority of the rest of the raw materials end up as waste products, which include air pollutants that constitute 15- 18% of the world’s anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. This is on a par with the entire transportation sector. It is hard to imagine another industry that would accept 3% efficiency in its production system, let alone an industry of this scale and importance.

Supporting the global desire for meat and dairy products takes an inordinate amount of the world’s resources; currently just over half the world’s ice-free landmass is used for livestock and their feed crops[2], as well as 25% of the world’s fresh water consumption. The result is that meat and dairy production are among the largest contributors to deforestation, the loss of habitat and biodiversity on the planet today. The basic paradigm has not significantly changed since the Stone Age: animals eat the plants, and we eat the animals.

Supporting the global desire for meat and dairy products takes an inordinate amount of the world’s resources.

World population is projected to increase from the current ~7.2 billion to over 9 billion by 2050. In addition, over that timeframe a 75% increase by volume in meat production (Figure 1) and a 60% increase in dairy production is expected[3]. This is equivalent to the addition of 425 million cows, 200 million pigs and 17 billion chickens to the current numbers[4]. It is unrealistic to think that enough resources can be found to scale up the current production system to meet this demand.

The goal is a product that handles and tastes like meat in the raw state as well as during, and after, cooking.

The challenge is how to produce the delicious, nutritious meat and dairy products that people demand in a way that will allow us to continue enjoying the planet on which we live.

There is a clear need to rethink the entire system. In our current approach, an animal is used as a technology to transform the proteins, fats and carbohydrates present in a form that we do not particularly want to eat (grass, corn, soy etc.) into a second form that we find delicious (meat, milk etc.). The question that we asked at Impossible Foods was whether you could produce a composite material of protein, fat and other nutrients, directly from plants, that would recreate the look, touch, taste, aroma and chew of meat. The goal is a product that handles and tastes like meat in the raw state as well as during, and after, cooking.

In order to replicate the performance of meat, Impossible Foods proceeded to reverse engineer the material to determine which molecules and structures were critical to quality. These include the rheological transitions that occur whilst meat cooks, as well as the sights and sounds of the meat sizzling on the grill. They also include the characteristic aromas that develop during cooking, which prime the brain to expect a delicious meal. Importantly, the chef wants to be able to create different dishes from the same meat, highlighting different flavour profiles in the dish.

This approach led to a number of important insights, including the critical nature of heme proteins in the production of meat flavour. The Maillard reaction between reducing sugars, amino acids and other species plus heat is well known to produce savoury, broth flavours, but when heme proteins are added to the reaction there is an explosion of meat flavours[5].

The dominant heme protein in muscle tissue, myoglobin, is a member of the structural superfamily (PF00042, http:// involved in binding and/or transporting oxygen. We found that the leghemoglobin from the root nodules of soybeans not only has the same structure, but performs the same flavour chemistry as myoglobin. Leghemoglobin is highly abundant in the nodules of soybeans during nitrogen fixation, the red colour of the dissected nodule is due to the presence of leghemoglobin (Figure 2).

Despite its abundance, accessing the leghemoglobin in soy nodules through traditional agronomic harvesting techniques was rejected for both mechanical and environmental reasons. We decided that a better solution would be to produce the protein by engineering a yeast, Pichia pastoris. The engineered yeast is a highly efficient method to make the heme protein (Figure 2), and a key step to alleviating the environmental burdens of animal farming.

Ingredients for the Impossible Burger

The other ingredients required to create the Impossible Burger are readily available commodity products: wheat and potato proteins to provide the chew and nutrition; coconut oil to provide the sizzle and mouthfeel; leghemoglobin, other nutrients and Maillard components to provide the flavour.

This simple set of ingredients combined with standard manufacturing processes allows large scale, cost effective production of the raw Impossible Burger. This is then sold to the chef for use in the recipe of their choice. As the flavour compounds are generated whilst the meat cooks, it allows the chef to modulate the taste by changing cooking conditions, exactly as you would with the animal product. Indeed, the underlying chemistry is identical.

The current Impossible Burger has slightly more protein, no cholesterol and essentially the same calories as 80:20 ground beef. In future iterations of the Impossible Burger, the ingredients and processes will be changed to make the product more delicious, increase the nutritional value of the food and decrease its environmental footprint. In order to fill the anticipated production ramp for meat (Figure 1), we will need better supplies of neutral tasting functional proteins from sustainable sources.

The current Impossible Burger has slightly more protein, no cholesterol and essentially the same calories as 80:20 ground beef.

To measure the environmental impact associated with the production of the Impossible Burger, we performed a rigorous lifecycle analysis that we could then compare with the incumbent product, ground beef.

The results are robust estimates that can be compared against the range of impacts associated with different beef production systems. As can be seen in Table 1, production of the Impossible Burger is significantly more efficient and sustainable than producing an equivalent burger using conventional animal technology.

These benefits are significant. For example, if only 10% of the annual US ground beef consumption (861 million pounds), was exchanged for the Impossible Burger, it would free up the land area equivalent to approximately 200 San Franciscos, and the equivalent fresh water of almost three billion showers. We have also leveraged our impact numbers to inform models of dietary adoption at a national scale, which demonstrate potential for enormous environmental savings[6].

Further, the lifecycle analysis provides guidance that allows optimisation of the Impossible Burger to reduce the environmental impact of production whilst we continue to improve the organoleptic and nutritional properties of the product.

The Impossible Burger is the first product to emerge from this new approach, which provides a technology platform for the future of food. The same technology is being applied to other animal products, as we look for sustainable ways to make the food needed to feed the nine billion, who deserve a delicious, nutritious diet that does not destroy the Earth. As the scientific method is applied to the production of meat and dairy products from sustainable sources, we anticipate a future where the quality of food increases whilst freeing up resources for biodiverse landscapes that actively reduce the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Table 1 Comparison of the environmental impact and resources required to create a 1/4lb burger.
Numbers for beef are extracted from published studies (7-9). Numbers for Impossible Burger are taken from an Impossible Foods LCA, as reviewed by Quantis.
Figure 1 Projected annual demand for meat to 2050 (3) Beef is shown in red, with all other meats shown in blue.

Figure 2 Leghemoglobin is found in the nitrogen fixing root nodules of soybeans and other legumes.
The red colour of leghemoglobin is visible in the dissected nodule. The same protein can be made by


Chris Davis

Director of Research and Development

Impossible Foods, Oakland, CA 94603, USA




1. Shepon A., Eshel G., Noor E. & Milo R., Energy and protein feed-to-food conversion efficiencies in the US and potential food security gains from dietary changes, Environmental Research Letters 11 (2016 105002

2. Fragmentation in Semi-Arid and Arid Landscapes: Consequences for Human and Natural Systems. (Springer Netherlands, 2008).

3. Alexandratos, N. & Bruinsma, J. World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050: The 2012 Revision. (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2012).

4. Calculation based in global production predictions from Alexandratos and Bruinsma (2012) Table 4.19

5. US9808029 Fraser R., Brown P.O., Karr J., Holz-Schietinger C. & Cohn E. Methods and compositions for affecting the flavor and aroma profile of consumables

6. Goldstein B, Moses R, Sammons N, Birkved M (2017) Potential to curb the environmental burdens of American beef consumption using a novel plant-based beef substitute. PLoS ONE 12(12): e0189029.

7. Steinfeld, Henning, Pierre Gerber, Tom Wassenaar, Vincent Castel, Mauricio Rosales, and Cees De Haan. Livestock’s Long Shadow. (FAO Rome, 2006).

8. Capper, J. L. Is the Grass Always Greener? Comparing the Environmental Impact of Conventional, Natural and Beef Production Systems. Animals 2, 127–143 (2012).

9. Mekonnen, M. M. & Hoekstra, A. Y. The green, blue and grey water footprint of farm animals and animal products. (UNESCO Institute for Water Education, 2010).



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